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updated: 5/20/2013 5:31 AM

Amtrak chugging away at expansion, high-speed rail

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  • Tyra Harris of Denver boards the Amtrak's California Zephyr in Naperville. She was heading home after a visit with relatives in Lombard.

       Tyra Harris of Denver boards the Amtrak's California Zephyr in Naperville. She was heading home after a visit with relatives in Lombard.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Amtrak's California Zephyr pulls into the Naperville Train station.

       Amtrak's California Zephyr pulls into the Naperville Train station.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Paul Michna/pmichna@dailyherald.comKevin Crowe, left, helps Jenny Wright of Naperville find her train car on the Amtrak's California Zephyr in Naperville.

      Paul Michna/pmichna@dailyherald.comKevin Crowe, left, helps Jenny Wright of Naperville find her train car on the Amtrak's California Zephyr in Naperville.

 
 

It's a sultry day in Naperville, and the heat bounces off the station platform concrete. Railroad track extends west as far as the eye can see. And what the eye can see is pretty flat.

Right on cue, warning bells go off and a silver Amtrak train glides in: the California Zephyr, bound for Rocky Mountain country, San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean.

Cross-country train travel maintains a certain romance, and the Zephyr is one of Amtrak's iconic trains that stops in the suburbs. The Southwest Chief, destined for Los Angeles by way of the Grand Canyon, also stops in Naperville. The Empire Builder and the Hiawatha Line pick up passengers in Glenview. The Texas Eagle goes by way of Joliet; the City of New Orleans stops in Homewood.

So will Amtrak expand service in the region?

Not anytime soon, according to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman. During a speech last week hosted by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, he said the agency has a lot on its plate and little in its coffers.

Overall, Amtrak pays for 88 percent of its operating costs but whether the agency is efficient with its dollars has been the subject of more studies than President Kennedy's assassination, Boardman said.

Some critics are questioning if these beloved long-distance trains are still worth it. Although they are not moneymakers, they knit the country together and provide transportation in underserved rural areas, said Boardman, who has a Teddy Roosevelt-like quality.

Any chipping away at those routes by Congress would be a national tragedy, he explained.

"Amtrak is America's railroad," he said. "If we don't have a coast-to-coast system, the country will be in a very sad state."

As for more local concerns, Union Station is cramped and, aside from the Great Hall, has a food-court ambience that doesn't befit one of the great historical rail hubs in the nation.

Amtrak recently released an ambitious master plan for expanding Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. The problem is, "as soon as you start one thing, you find everyone wants the same thing," Boardman said, noting Baltimore also wants a station redo.

"We don't have a plan for (Chicago) like we have for Washington, D.C.," he said. But "we want to have more improvements. We are looking for revenues to make that happen."

Amtrak has invested about $100 million in track work at Chicago Union Station, he added.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is pushing for a connection between Union Station and O'Hare International Airport. "I'd like to see it happen. But it will take agreements ... and time," Boardman said.

Asked about complaints of delays on Amtrak's Michigan routes, Boardman said the railway is working with the state to improve service as construction of a high-speed rail system continues there.

Illinois has its own high-speed rail program under construction from Chicago and St. Louis, with speeds projected to reach 110 mph between Joliet and Alton, compared to 79 mph currently routewide. Amtrak is part of the project, as well as one to start a new passenger rail service between Chicago and the Quad Cities, he noted.

I inquired about Lake Forest's lengthy quest to get its own Amtrak stop but got no earth-shattering news other than the process is continuing.

There's been a lot of pooh-poohing of Illinois' 110 mph plan with critics saying that's nothing compared to 200 mph trains in Europe and Japan.

Boardman projected trains on the St. Louis corridor could reach 125 mph and told his audience to "keep your vision. A vision needs to be beyond what is practical for today."

Got thoughts on Amtrak, high-speed rail or have a "North by Northwest" experience to share (without the chase scenes)? Drop me a line at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

You should know

Speaking of trains, it wasn't pretty on any Metra Union Pacific Lines during the afternoon rush Wednesday. About 64 trains were delayed from 40 minutes to an hour and passengers faced confusion at Ogilvie Transportation Center. The trouble started about 3 p.m. when a computer system just north of Ogilvie failed, Metra spokesman Meg Reile said. "This affected a number of switches controlling train operations into and out of the station. The operator at the tower had no way of seeing where trains were on the system and no way of remotely controlling the switches. At this point, all traffic on all three UP lines was stopped near the station."

The switches were operating again by 4:35 p.m. but little to none of the trains needed to accommodate passengers was ready to go. As trains arrived, they were sent to the first available platforms, which meant many riders who gathered on their normal platforms had to relocate to catch the correct train.

"There are inherent difficulties in moving a large number of people through a congested depot in orderly fashion and making sure that everyone who needs to gets the message," Reile said.

One more thing

A bill that would strip away perks like health care and pensions from future Regional Transportation Authority, Metra, Pace and CTA board members awaits Gov. Quinn's signature. It was sponsored by state Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, and state Sen. Dan Duffy, a Barrington Republican.

Your voice

Lots of buzz about last week's column on why our region has the highest gas prices in the land.

Let's hear from John Hamilton of Wheaton who writes, "much of what you said is true (summer blends) but how do you explain the lower prices in California and the Denver area where pollution is as bad or worse than the Chicago area?

"We understand the tax issue in the state and counties, but the other 'excuses' given to justify the higher pump prices are ridiculous. How can one station charge 25 cents more per gallon than another station a few blocks apart? Last week the prices went up 20 cents a gallon overnight. Did the oil companies just figure out their maintenance issues or the issue with producing special blend gasoline?

"It's difficult to understand why the oil companies raise gasoline prices at the pumps the day after a pipeline or refinery problem. The gasoline we are purchasing is already in the tanks and to me they are just using these issues as a reason to stick it to the public."

Gridlock alert

The Touhy Avenue bridge over the Edens Expressway is getting a concrete makeover starting today through July 15. Only one lane in each direction will be open for the duration and the ramps from the northbound Edens to westbound Touhy and southbound Edens to eastbound Touhy will be closed with detours posted. Drive carefully and may the Force be with you.

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